Primary Caregiver

Also known as: Primary Caretaker, Family Caregiver

Last Updated: January 2, 2022

Written by the Open Caregiving Team. Editorial review by Joyce O. Murphy RN, MSN.

What is a primary caregiver?

A primary caregiver is the person who assumes care for another who is no longer able to care for themselves or their home. It is called “primary” because that person is the one who is most responsible for a loved one or friend.

At various times throughout life, many people become a primary caregiver. One of the most common roles of a primary caregiver is that of parent. Another is an adult child now caring for an older parent.

What are the different primary caregiver relationships?

Becoming the primary caregiver for an adult loved one or friend:

  • You may find yourself in a new role caring for a parent, parent-in-law or family member. When you become a loved one’s primary caregiver, you may need to assume responsibilities with which you’ve had little experience. This often happens when adult children care for parents in their later years. Within an extended family, someone who is younger may care for an older relative such as a grand uncle.
  • Another common primary caregiver relationship is between spouses and life partners. The caregiving role may be short or long-term, depending on the loved one’s health and personal care needs. One person might be the primary caregiver for a while, then later becoming the care recipient.

Becoming the primary caregiver for a child or children:

  • Sometimes this lasts into a child’s adult years when a person has special health and/or developmental needs.
  • Assuming the care of a relative’s child, as parents and extended family do when the need arises.

What are the responsibilities of a primary caregiver?

The roles of primary caregivers are quite varied. There are a number of responsibilities to manage day by day, or from one week to the next. They are:
Personal care, making sure your loved one’s basic needs are met

  • Managing activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, toileting, grooming, and dressing.
  • Meal preparation, eating, drinking, and taking medications.
  • Assisting with moving around, going from room to room, or outdoors if able.

Keeping appointments and participating in social activities when able

  • Providing or scheduling transportation.
  • Making appointments, scheduling medical tests, and selecting appropriate events for your loved one.

Monitoring health information to share with healthcare providers

  • Keeping an eye on blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and respirations.
  • Doing special tests like blood sugar level.
  • Keeping track of medications, noting any side effects and noting when medications are working as expected.
  • Letting your loved one’s healthcare professionals know about a change in condition, especially when there is a decline. Of course, they like to know when someone’s condition improves. It’s usually not as urgent as when someone gets weaker or more confused.

Housekeeping and household maintenance

  • Keeping up with daily housework and chores, such as cooking, doing dishes, tidying up, and steps to keep the setting clean.
  • Running errands, getting groceries, and paying bills.

Being a companion for your loved one
People who are ill or older benefit from your company, even when you are busy tending to their home. They benefit from:

  • Conversations, even as you work, describing what you are doing.
  • Your reading to them.
  • Writing notes for them to send to family and friends.
  • Listening to music.
  • Playing fun games such as Bingo or cards.
  • Some people love an extra hand with a jigsaw puzzle, or an extra mind with a crossword puzzle.

Do you have to legally become a primary caregiver?

Caregiving is guided by federal and state laws. State laws vary from one to the next. Despite that, the laws describe who can be a primary caregiver:

  • When you become your loved one’s primary caregiver, you need to abide by certain rules.
    • These may include how they behave with the person in their care, assuring the person is well cared for.
    • The rules often authorize who is responsible for money matters and assuring that a person’s property is protected.

What are the challenges of becoming a primary caregiver?

Being a primary caregiver is an important responsibility. At the same time, it can affect your life, including both your family and work.

  • Changing routine: As a primary caregiver, you may need to change your work hours, or give up your job completely. The role may interrupt your education as well.
    • Remember that for short-term caregiving your job may be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
    • Hiring home care agency caregivers can help with juggling your responsibilities. It also assures that your loved one has the care you want for them.
  • Moving homes: Being a primary caregiver may mean that you or your loved one move to the other’s home.
    • This can be the case when you are caring for your children and household as well as a dependent adult.
    • This move may mean you have to make changes in your home. That happens when someone has limited mobility or special health needs.
  • Feeling exhausted: It can be physically and emotionally demanding to be another person’s primary caregiver. It’s too easy to slip into the habit of not taking good care of your own needs.
    • This can result in increased aches and pains or feeling blue and depressed.
    • You owe it to yourself to call on family members, friends, therapy or support groups to provide respite care. That time is for you to take care of yourself.
  • Managing finances: Financial situations vary from one family or person to the next.

What are the benefits of becoming a primary caregiver?

Despite caregiver challenges, there are benefits for you and your loved one.

  • Caring for another at home can save money, as out-of-home care can be costly.
  • When your loved one is in their own home, it increases their comfort. They may experience less confusion than they would in strange surroundings.
  • You may gain a sense of fulfillment because of the care you are giving to your family member.
  • It’s possible that you find you have abilities and strengths you weren’t aware of before.
  • Calling on other family members, including your children, to lend a caring hand gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Can there be two primary caregivers?

Determination of who is the primary caregiver is best managed within a family. Typically there is one primary caregiver and primary caregivers are typically age 18 or older.

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Related Topics To Learn About

Area Agency on Aging

Area Agencies on Aging are organizations that share information and local resources for people who are aging and their caregivers.

Respite Care

Respite care offers primary caregivers a temporary break from the demanding day to day of caring for a family member who is disabled, ill, or aging.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA allows qualified employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to handle family and medical circumstances while keeping their health benefits and job.